By Karen D. Austin
I have owned a small business that serves children in Grants Pass for 32 years; the first three decades as All That Jazz Dance Studio, and since 2020, rebranded as Southern Oregon Dance Center. We had been planning to relocate downtown, remodel and rebrand right before COVID and the lockdowns hit. Our long history and great reputation in the community as the Rogue Valley’s top award-winning contemporary dance school since 1989 were strong, but we still lost 75% of our dance students in March 2020. Like every other local small business in town, COVID lockdowns threw us for a huge loop.
But as early as six weeks into the “two weeks to slow the spread,” I knew something was fishy with the “pandemic news feeds” and that there was a fair amount of fear-mongering going on. The data bombarding us daily on the mainstream news just didn’t add up. Projections were retracted, and doctors I trusted were calling foul.
One thing was certain early on: Otherwise healthy children were not in any serious risk should they catch this virus. Conversely, MANY kids were suffering emotionally from isolation depression and anxiety at rates never seen before. Parents began contacting me regularly, asking when we would return to in-person instruction again because their children struggled without anything being “normal” anymore. With my faith as impetus and my understanding of the Constitution to back it up, I sensed that the draconian state mandates were overreaching and unlawful.
So, I called local law enforcement, a local state representative, trusted health professionals and legal counsel, and asked what might happen if I reopened with certain health and safety protocols in place. I was given sound advice and assured I would not be arrested nor fined by local law enforcement for breach of any actual law or statute … because none existed! The “mandates” coming from Salem were not laws; they were simply recommendations framed in fear and cloaked in a narrative that implied they were law so that all would comply.
In late April 2020, with precautions and protocols in place, Southern Oregon Dance Center was the only dance studio in the Valley that reopened for in-person training – with masking optional (as a personal family/doctor decision). We’ve never shut down nor required face-coverings since.
But standing for personal freedoms isn’t an easy road. Twenty-one anonymous “complaints” regarding our optional masking policies and protocols were filed against us with Oregon OSHA, and I had to defend every one. It reminded me of the stories my mother told of neighbors turning in neighbors for unfounded infractions against “the state” in her small town in Yugoslavia during World War II. I was threatened with fines of $10,000 per complaint, and with being shut down. But, whenever I asked the OSHA supervisor via phone conversations, “Will OSHA or Salem assume liability for any of my dancers who suffer asthma issues, anxiety attacks or severe hypercapnia symptoms (dangerous elevations of CO2/ lack of safe O2 levels) if they are forced to wear a mask?” I was redirected or given a slipshod non-answer. I just kept praying for wisdom and stayed open for the kids. I put up a NO TRESSPASSING sign on our front door barring “any unelected official from entering without a warrant” and a “We Respect Medical Privacy” notice as well. Our enrollment grew into the Fall of 2020 and 2021 back to our usual 175-plus students aged 3-18.
Then, OSHA made a grave error in the Fall of 2021. Unannounced, illegally ignoring the NO TRESPASSING sign, an OSHA “inspector” entered the studio when I wasn’t present and approached our front desk. An 11-year-old was seated there doing her homework, and he questioned the child, asking for the owner, but giving an unknown name (not mine). She was confused and anxious because he was intimidating, curt AND he was wearing a Scooby-Do mask!
I called OSHA and in no uncertain terms told the supervisor that they would never again send a male inspector, unannounced, to our dance studio to peer in through our viewing windows at our leotard-clad young female students and disrupt our teaching process. I also let her know that parents universally instruct their children never to speak to adult male strangers wearing cartoon character accessories.
She instantly began back-pedaling, apologizing and finally saying that our file would be marked “Closed.” I knew then that this was exactly why I had never pursued nonprofit 501c3 status (which many arts instruction venues do). As a privately-owned and operated small business, we can truly serve the children of our community best without having to bow to illegal government dictates, agencies or draconian overreach.
Southern Oregon Dance Center continues to thrive and grow with incredible dance students, staff and supportive parents. We’ve also just launched the first professional contemporary dance ensemble in the Rogue Valley, Southern Oregon Dance Collective! We welcome all children to our nurturing environment where integrity, joy, personal excellence and freedom abound. Face coverings will always be optional, but we suggest leaving the Scooby-Do mask at home.
Karen D. Austin is the Artistic Director and owner of Southern Oregon Dance Center. She has also been a foster parent, a CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate for children in our Josephine County court system), a certified Integrative Health Coach, as well as a credentialed teacher having taught in both public and private schools in California and Oregon. Faith, family and community are where her heart focuses. See: SouthernOregonDanceCenter.org